business woman and man doing fist bump (Photo: Shutterstock)

(Bloomberg Opinion) –U.S. markets are now fully awake to the fact that the coronavirus is a threat that isn’t going to abate anytime soon, as witnessed by Monday’s steep sell-off in stocks. The U.S. government can do more to show its eyes are open as well.

The message so far has been that the virus, known as Covid-19, isn’t spreading here and that the risk is low for most Americans. That’s still true. But with cases surging in an growing number of countries, the chances that the disease will develop into a full-blown pandemic are getting higher. Italy’s out-of-nowhere outbreak highlights the fact that the Covid-19 virus seems able to spread quietly and pop up anywhere.

It’s not time to panic. But it is time to prepare by encouraging the public to start changing its behavior, laying the groundwork for a public-health response, and scaling up investment that will help providers catch and treat cases. America’s ability to combat the virus will be held back by flaws in its health-care system and years of under-investment. The sooner the country begins to shore up its defenses, the better chance it has of limiting the toll the virus may take.

How do things stand now? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the primary U.S. organization responsible for dealing with outbreaks, has been battling funding cuts for years, and the Trump administration wants further trims. The $2.6 billion budgeted in 2020 for an emergency fund dedicated to health disasters will be a drop in the bucket should the disease spread here. Congress can authorize more spending — and a White House spokesman said Monday the administration plans to request emergency funds — but the timing and amount of funding remains uncertain. It’s likely the CDC and other agencies will inevitably be playing catch-up. On top of that, millions of Americans lack health coverage entirely and many more avoid care due to high costs. Meanwhile, a portion of the population have grown so distrustful of elements of modern medicine such as vaccines that previously well-controlled diseases are spreading. All of this may contribute to the chances that America misses cases of the sometimes mild disease and boosts its potential spread.

Early containment measures will be crucial. The first step is to change messaging to acknowledge the growing risk, and to highlight the small but essential steps people can take. No, the disease isn’t spreading in the U.S., but there is a strong chance it will. People should make an extra effort at developing good hygiene habits, including washing hands frequently, covering coughs, and touching their faces less. There have been efforts to do this at the local level, but it’s worth going national. (Other good ideas include fist bumping instead of shaking hands, staying home when feeling ill, and seeking treatment if symptoms of upper respiratory infection manifest.)

It’s also time to plan for stepped-up public-health measures. America is nowhere near needing quarantines or internal travel restrictions. But there should be a clearly communicated standard for when they might be required, as well as an effort to prepare the public and businesses for the possibility. Preparation will mean a faster and better rollout if such measures are needed, and less of the scrambling and shock seen in countries such as Italy.

Finally, broader testing needs to be a priority. Rapid, routine, and accurate screening for the virus would help catch cases before they turn into the sort of outbreaks that require disruptive quarantines and help direct finite resources where they’re needed most. Missing cases or false negatives can have a huge impact. Unfortunately, the CDC has a ways to go in its efforts to build testing capacity, and there’s little visible progress towards faster point-of-care options. The agency is beginning to broaden surveillance, but needs to fill many gaps. More diagnostics-focused funding and increased efforts to approve and produce private tests are likely to be essential.

No one can fix America’s health system and pandemic preparedness overnight. But it’s possible to do more to make sure it won’t be excessively strained.

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